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David Wallechinsky

David Wallechinsky

Posted: February 4, 2008 10:13 AM

Super Tuesday: The Illusion of Democracy


I have voted in every presidential primary since 1972, but because I live in California, my vote has never counted. By the time Californians got to vote, the candidate for each party had already been selected by voters in other states. When California moved up its primary to become part of so-called "Super Tuesday," it looked like my vote would finally count.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses that kicked off the 2008 election season, washingtonpost.com provided a 25-question feature, "Choose Your Candidate," that allowed you to match your own views on issues with those of the views of the candidates, as submitted by their campaigns, without having the candidates' names attached to their positions. I never finished the Republican questionnaire because the Republican candidates seemed to be aggressively competing to attract voters from among the 33% of Americans who think President Bush is doing a good job. I am not one of those people.

The Democratic questionnaire included answers submitted by the campaigns of 6 of the 8 Democratic candidates (Kucinich and Gravel did not respond). I answered as many of the questions as I deemed relevant and then, extremely curious, I clicked through to see with which candidates I was ideologically most aligned. Here are my results:

Joe Biden: 16
Bill Richardson: 16
Chris Dodd: 15
John Edwards: 2
Hillary Clinton: 0
Barack Obama: 0

Like a good citizen, I began reading more about the ideas and positions of Biden, Richardson and Dodd. I needn't have bothered because, by the time I did get to vote, all three of my candidates of interest had dropped out, as had, for that matter, John Edwards. I was left with a choice between my two zeros.

Supporters of Clinton and Obama will tell you that their candidates rose to the top because they were more electable than the other Democratic candidates. This is not true. What counts in terms of electability is not how the Democratic candidates match up against each other, but how they would match up one-on-one with the Republican candidate, presumably John McCain. You cannot convince me that Hillary Clinton would have an easier time defeating McCain than would, say, Chris Dodd. Another alleged factor of importance is experience. You cannot convince me that Barack Obama, a first-term U.S. Senator, is more qualified to be president of the United States than Bill Richardson, who served in Congress for 14 years, served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as Secretary of Energy and is currently the governor of New Mexico.

Clinton and Obama advanced not because of their positions on issues or because of their qualifications, but because they were successfully marketed as celebrities, and because, early on, they attracted major financial contributions from large law firms, securities and investment firms and from the real estate industry.

The media, television in particular, played a major role in winnowing down the candidates to two Democrats and two Republicans not so much because they cared about the individual candidates, but because one-on-one contests attract better ratings than confusing multi-candidate races. To continue the sports analogy implied by the name "Super Tuesday," the day's primaries and caucuses are being pitched to us like conference championships: the winner of the Clinton-Obama game will play the winner of the McCain-Romney game in the National Championship.

I will vote in the primary, even though all of the candidates I liked are already gone, but I will do so with disappointment, knowing that, like the voters in more than 40 states, I never got a chance to vote for the candidates with whom I most agreed.